My Life With Horses - Part 3
WORK WITH HORSES? – DON’T DO IT!
In the sixth form at school we were allowed to have a day out each week on work experience. My mother had decided that my future should lie in veterinary work – she was delusional – I was nowhere near academically good enough for that so with a little bit of blagging, you know, horses are animals etc, I managed to secure a placement at a well respected riding school near Yelverton, Devon. It was bound to happen, one of the groom/instructors left and there was a job going for a working pupil, to include training for the Assistant Instructors' exam. The setup for the exams was different then, there was only one exam, the BHS Stages didn’t count (although they did exist) no college or crash courses, you learned “on the job” – personally I still think it’s the best way.
I decided to apply and was successful, I just hadn’t told the family or the school about what I was up to. Yet another family row and seriously bad atmosphere for some time but I do think that the St Trinians equivalent was relieved to see the back of me! Part of the retribution for being rebellious was to be left to get myself to work and back each day, this was a three mile walk and half hour bus ride but it was worth it – I think!
We had twenty horses between four of us – five each consisting of school horses, livery horses and one of your own (the infamous Polo in my case, who even the other grooms wouldn’t get on!). Our terms were impressive for those days, £25 for a six day week, eight to six but no overtime pay; one Saturday in four and one Sunday off, but not a whole weekend; reduced livery – yes, reduced not free; lunch supplied each day and Sunday (pay day) was special lunch day. We would have the usual crisps and soup, pasty, sausage roll or sandwich but instead of ordinary cake for dessert we would have fresh cream apple turnovers – yummy! The owners would actually take us to the house for lunch so that we had a proper hours’ break – we really did work quite hard and Dartmoor is particularly unforgiving in the winter especially.
The routine was quite specific – feed, hay, muck out your five, then help anyone who hadn’t finished. Once the yard was tidied we would have to get the horses ready for the first clients of the day. By ready I mean they and we had to be immaculate – even hacking out we had to wear shirt, tie, beige jods and long boots, jacket style depended on the weather, as did the scarves, gloves and fishermans’ socks! All of this had to be done in time for the client’s to leave the yard or start their lesson bang on 9 o’clock! We were not allowed to be late – it was not an option and everything had to be done correctly – that preciseness has stayed with me all my life and I still get stressed when I can’t do something “correctly” for whatever reason – sad isn’t it, or maybe just good training?
In those days we didn’t have synthetic turnouts, quilted rugs, Velcro and cross surcingles, it was canvas, jute, blankets and rollers. It could take ages to rug up the clipped horses in the winter, needless to say it had to be done absolutely correctly and you didn’t want to be the one caught with the blanket that slipped at night!
There were fun times, the hacking across Dartmoor is amazing in the better weather, unnerving in the fog and downright miserable in rain and snow but what a place! The views from the tors are amazing, the landscape so varied with gorse and bog, dotted with grazing sheep, cattle and the darling Dartmoor ponies. We used to take a two hour hack with experienced riders only to a place called Doublewaters, where two rivers meet unsurprisingly, and it was always a favourite ride to escort for all of us. On summer evenings we used to take a ride to the Royal Oak in Meavy now and again with a couple of priviledged clients for a drink and a pasty – good thing the horses knew the way home!
We used to teach a group of disabled riders each week, it was lovely to see how they would interact with the horses and how the horses were so kind and tolerant. I expect anyone who has ever worked with disabled riders will know exactly what I mean.
Another summer event we had to contend with was the visit from the Army – for a few days each summer they would send a group of “squaddies” hacking with us. Anyone who has ever tried to control a group of borderline unruly young men on board suddenly unruly horses will understand the feeling of dread we felt as we left the yard. Remember, we were young girls for a start, two of us to eight of them and we may as well have been trying to teach obedience to a bag full of ferrets! Amid cries of tally ho chaps! and hi ho Silver away, we would watch in horror as they galloped away across the nearby golf links with various golfers scattering to the four points of the compass! Of course, we knew this was definitely not the done thing and we would be trying to keep our leaping monsters to the paths we were supposed to be on whilst trying to catch up with the errant soldiers before they totally disappeared over the horizon - again!
Yes, we worked hard, got cold, got hot, had water fights and nights out and learnt so much about horses that has stayed with me forever. Keep your colleges for me!
Life got boring soon afterwards, I got married, had my son and my career – I won’t bore you with that - but I kept my horse and I was soon involved with horses again!